Saturday, June 8, 2024

Belief and Reality


Belief is ultimately based on reality: the believers’ experiences, how they explain those experiences, and how much they trust their explanations. The experiences can be direct or shared by someone else. Explanations can be created by the believer or provided by others. Trust is based on how well explanations match with experience, and how well other explanations from the sources have matched with experience.

Explanations are used to craft expectations of what exists and what is likely to exist as a result of certain actions by oneself and others. Treating those expectations as reality is a fundamental outcome of belief, enabling action unhindered by doubt that could trigger diversion of resources into investigating the validity of the reasons for it. Belief thus increases the efficiency of attaining goals that depend on actions, with a maximum that is limited by how closely its basis matches reality.

Another outcome of belief is reduction of stress triggered by uncertainty, especially about what affects one’s survival. Belief masks the unknown with a fictional alternative that feels known, or at least knowable, often with a narrative that provides prescriptions for interpreting and dealing with its experiential manifestations. People have different tolerances for this kind of stress, and so will prefer to rely on belief to varying degrees and in different ways. 

Social pressure, partly due to dependence on others for surviving and thriving, can enforce a set of beliefs that supersedes personal preference in order to maintain group coherence that sustains that dependence, experienced by its members as part of a shared identity. In an increasingly unpredictable environment, where explanations underlying current beliefs cease to match current experience to an extent necessary for survival (and maintain tolerable stress), trust in the beliefs will necessarily erode; and for a group whose identity is strongly tied to its beliefs, that environment will be perceived as a threat to its existence.

Threats can be tolerated, escaped, or confronted. Changing beliefs is an approach to toleration. Changing location is a way to escape with beliefs intact. Confronting a threat might be successful with current beliefs; but if it isn’t, then developing new understanding of the threat is a critical first step that might require changing beliefs, especially if actions taken based on those beliefs are found to have contributed to the threat or could in the future.

Constant development and test of explanations based on growing collection of experience is an alternative to belief that attacks uncertainty directly and reduces stress by providing a realistic basis for identifying and managing both opportunities and threats. The consequences of actions can be better understood and predicted, increasing their efficiency in pursuit of goals that themselves can be better chosen in the pursuit of surviving and thriving, if that is what people want to do. This approach, in its most organized form known as science, treats alternate descriptions and explanations as means toward ultimately achieving a common set that accounts for all of experience: past, present, and future. Identity based on favored descriptions and explanations is considered counterproductive except to the extent that it promotes competition that can help in the process.

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